It seems like everywhere from road races and cyclocross nationals to trade shows and gravel events, we’ve run into Boyd Johnson. And rarely not by his side is his wife, Nicole. Of course, best of all (depending if it’s nap time or not), their young daughter Olive is also in tow. The Johnsons have been plugging away at their wheel business for a decade now, which means they’ve witnessed everything from the industry rush to carbon clinchers to the need for wider internal widths.
Having just moved Boyd Cycling to a new facility in Greenville, North Carolina, we sat down with the 41-year-old wheel builder to find out more about his self-made business and what the latest tips are for consumers.
GOING ROUND AND ROUND
How did you get started in cycling?
I lived about 15 miles outside of the town (Jamestown, New York) where I went to high school. During summer break I used to ride down to town and back to go smoke with my friends. My dad caught me smoking and made it very clear that I was going to stop, and I did. But, I kept riding! When I was 13, he and I entered an MS 100-mile bike ride together, and I rode it on a 5-speed BMX bike we had bought from a department store. We continued doing a few event rides, and then I entered my first race later that year.
What was your background in being a wheel guy and running your business?
I went to college for two years studying business management, but I realized that whatever I was going to do in life I wouldn’t need college. I went to bike races instead.
How did you decide to jump into the wheel business?
I started getting more and more into racing over the years, and eventually was able to turn professional for a couple of years for a very small domestic pro team. Being on multiple teams we had lots of different wheel sponsors, and I experienced what made wheels good, where improvements could be made, and what I could do differently to improve my own performance. I would often take the sponsor-given wheels and rebuild them using different spokes, lacing patterns and tensions in order to have the best-performing wheels.
“I went to college for two years studying business management, but I realized that whatever I was going to do in life I wouldn’t need college. I went to bike races instead.”
In 2009 I was finishing up my last year of racing professionally and started reaching out to manufacturers to start producing parts for us. We launched the company in 2009 when we started ordering open-mold rims and frames from our home. We would source the parts, and I would build the wheels and just sell to friends and friends of friends.
Eventually, the wheel business started taking off, and in 2011 we just decided to focus on building and selling wheels.
Where are the wheels built?
We are in the process of rapidly expanding our OEM sales (wheels that will come spec’d on various model bikes). Because these bikes are fully assembled in Taiwan, the wheel delivery would have to be Taiwan. For the OEM market we are still planning to build the wheels in Taiwan, as it makes no sense to ship a fully assembled wheel around the world. Since 2021, all aftermarket wheels we’ve sold have been built in Greenville.
What was the deal with the industry’s first push into carbon clinchers that was fraught with quite a few failures?
Yeah, that was just part of the learning curve and the advancements in resin technology that have occurred since. Originally, some of the manufacturers were using resins that had a glass transition point (GTP) that occurred at 140–170 degrees Celsius and that would cause delamination. Now the recognized GTP is 210–240 degrees.
What are the three most important things to consider for a road consumer?
1. What size tire and what pressure are you running? This will dictate the type of riding you can do and will also tell you the size rim you should be running. For example, on our 36mm road disc wheel we have a 22mm internal width because tire size ranges from 25mm up to 35mm. That wheel is used for all types of riding and all conditions. Our 90 Road Disc is going to be used purely for the pavement and purely for time-trial or triathlon-type events. With that, the tire range will be in the 23- to 25mm range, and the internal width of the rim is 19mm.
2. Don’t sacrifice durability for a few grams. Yes, it’s always possible to make parts lighter. However, you need to consider at what cost. If you’re a 200-plus-pound rider and opt for 16/20-spoke-count wheels, it’s going to lead to disappointment down the road. Go for extra spokes because the added 50 to 60 grams of spoke weight is nothing you will ever notice (remember, an empty water bottle weighs 95 grams), but sitting on the side of the road with a broken spoke is something you’ll definitely notice.
“We’ve had some 700c tires that were so hard to mount that we thought they were mislabeled 650b tires. As a wheel maker, you can’t make a wheel that plays nice with everyone’s tires. The tire makers need to figure out their bead design and technology; it’s their solution to figure out, not the wheel maker’s.”
3. Aero is not always everything. There are events where you definitely want to have every aero advantage possible. However, there are things I like to prioritize over aerodynamics for a lot of cases. Example, if I am riding in the hilly terrain or racing a criterium, I will be on at least 28mm tires for better handling and vibration damping. I’m certainly not going to ride a 23mm tire (like the old days) in a criterium just for the better aero factor.
What are three most important things for a gravel rider to consider?
1. Tubeless is a huge advantage, as any puncture at lower pressure will seal up, whereas an inner tube with even a small puncture will leak air. On road we can debate all day long about the merits of tubeless, but with low-pressure/high-volume tires there simply is no debate.
2. Get your equipment for the type of gravel you’ll be riding. Gravel went from something we did on road bikes when we were bored to a whole segment of its own. In a matter of a couple of years people went from using cyclocross bikes to gravel-specific bikes. Now we are seeing gravel splitting into different segments. There’s gravel racing, gravel adventure rides and gravel bike-packing. Based on what you’re wanting to ride, your equipment selection should be determined by this.
3. Learn how to work on your bike and bring tools! A great gravel or adventure ride will take you where there is very little traffic and oftentimes no cell service. Think about what would happen if you broke a chain or a shifter cable miles from civilization! Most people tend to only focus on being able to fix a flat tire on a ride because it’s the most common issue while riding. However, I’ve done rides where I’ve had to search for derailleur pulleys in the woods and rebuild a derailleur so I could make it back to where I’ve started my ride.
What has been the most significant tech to come to wheels in the last few years?
I don’t think there’s been any one thing to be that significant. I think we’re seeing better manufacturing methods, more competition and an evolution of designing wheels for a purpose. If you look at the wheels being used a decade ago, they all had quick-release skewers. There were no disc brakes (even for cyclocross), and people used separate wheels for training and events. Flash-forward less than a decade later and carbon has advanced to the point where it’s now used as an everyday wheel option.
Companies come out with stronger, lighter products, and as the manufacturing methods continue to refine, pricing comes down for the consumer. Overall, this is a big win for a person looking at wheels. When we started Boyd Cycling in 2009, the typical high-quality wheelset would run between $2000 to $3000 and was used only for events.
While you will still see some wheels in this price range, you’re also seeing wheels that cost a lot less that can have the same performance and can be ridden hard every day in all conditions.
With carbon getting so cheap, is there any reason to consider aluminum hoops?
Yes! Aluminum definitely still has a place. People always think of carbon wheels as being lighter. However, if you look at the wall thickness needed for parts of a rim, aluminum will have an advantage. Example: On our rim brake carbon wheels we have a 19mm internal and a 27mm external measurement (giving a 4mm difference per side for the hook). Our rim brake alloy wheels have a 20mm internal and 24mm external measurement (that difference per side goes down to 2mm). Our new CCC gravel alloy rim is 415 grams, and our new Altamont road disc rim is 400 grams, so this is at or even below the weight of a lot of carbon rims.
Carbon does have the advantage of having a better strength-to-weight ratio, so once you start going with deeper rims, they have to be made out of carbon fiber (you would not want to ride a 55mm deep-alloy rim!). Also, with high-impact situations (cyclocross and mountain bike), carbon has better impact resistance compared to aluminum. The difference is that aluminum will bend, whereas carbon cracks when it reaches the breaking points. If you slightly ding an alloy rim, it’s possible to still ride it. However, if a carbon rim breaks you need to replace it.
Which brings up the cost of potential repairs. Aluminum rims will always be less expensive than carbon rims. So, if you’re in a situation where you need to replace a rim due to an accident, the aluminum option will cost less to replace. Overall, looking at the type of riding you’re doing will dictate what wheel works best for you. Some people definitely need the performance boost that a carbon wheel can bring, and a lot of people choose to go for the bling factor of a carbon wheel, which is a perfectly acceptable reason to spring for carbon.
We’ve actually been doing really well with 650b alloy wheels, because riders who are “650b curious” want to try both wheel sizes, so they opt for a less expensive method.
What is your best tubeless tip?
Don’t be intimidated by it, and don’t listen to people who immediately discourage anybody from ever riding tubeless. There are benefits and there are drawbacks (just like with inner tubes). My recommendation is to give it a try. It’s fairly easy to set up a wheel for tubeless, and if you ride for a couple of months and decide that tubeless is not for you, then you can go back. It’s not like you have to get a tubeless tattoo that’s with you forever.
Why has there been so much difficulty with tubeless and changing tires? What role has the evolving ETRTO (European Tire and Rim Technical Organization) standards played in making tires so hard to get on and off?
The issue is not with the wheels. Whether it’s our aluminum or carbon rim, we hit the ETRTO bead-seat diameter spec within .1mm. We’ve had some 700c tires that were so hard to mount that we thought they were mislabeled 650b tires. As a wheel maker, you can’t make a wheel that plays nice with everyone’s tires. The tire makers need to figure out their bead design and technology; it’s their solution to figure out, not the wheel maker’s.
I will say that road hookless rims still scare the heck out of me. I frequently hear people saying that they run 23c tires at 120 psi, because that’s what the tire says is the max pressure, so when you mix hookless wheels with it, all the old tires out there that are being run at high pressure can be a problem.
I remember back in 2009 when I competed in the Tour of Battenkill gravel race on 22mm tubulars with 110 psi because I didn’t want to flat! Unfortunately, while a lot of us recognize how much tire and rim technology has changed since then, many people don’t. Those are many people we have to factor in with all of our discussions, R&D and marketing. Safety should always be the first priority.